Welcome to our BIG, everything-you-need-to-know guide for growing milkweed! If you want to bring magic to your garden, add milkweed. Not only are they beautiful and easy to grow, but they also play a crucial role in the life cycle of one of nature’s most iconic creatures: the monarch butterfly. In this blog, we’ll be diving into the joys of growing milkweed and all the benefits that come with it.
From planting to care and everything in between, we’ll show you how easy it is to make a difference in the lives of monarchs. So, grab your gardening gloves and cup of tea, and start exploring the world of milkweed!
Why Grow Milkweed Plants for Monarch Butterflies?
Growing milkweed plants can help support the declining population of monarch butterflies. Monarch butterflies rely on milkweed as their primary food source for their larvae and as a place to lay their eggs.
As milkweed habitat has declined due to human activities such as development into their natural habitats and overuse of herbicides, monarch populations have declined steadily and need our help.
- Learn More: See our complete guide on growing a well-appointed butterfly habitat to attract butterflies to your garden.
Growing Milkweed In The Garden
Milkweed is a unique plant with distinctive flowers and foliage that make it easily recognizable.
The milkweed flowers are clusters of small, star-shaped blooms in various colors, including pink, purple, yellow, and white. They are arranged in umbel-like clusters and bloom in summer, attracting pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
The foliage of milkweed is also quite distinctive. Milkweed leaves are usually large and oval-shaped and range in color from bright green to gray-green. They are often covered in fine hairs, giving them a soft, velvety texture. Some milkweed species have slightly toothed or lobed leaves, adding to their visual interest.
The sap of milkweed plants is toxic to many herbivores, which makes the leaves and stems less palatable to animals like rabbits and deer.
- Learn More: See our full list of deer-resistant plants for your gardens.
Many organizations are currently working to support monarch butterfly populations by offering free seeds.
USA: In the USA, you can check out Little Wings – They take donations and offer free seed packets of milkweed.
Canada: Check out the Canadian EBC for seeds and regional information for planting milkweed in Canada.
Best Milkweed Plants for Your Region
There are many kinds of milkweed plant to grow in your garden, and many are suited for specific growing conditions. Before deciding on a milkweed cultivar, know your growing zone and conditions. Here are six different popular milkweed species and their best-growing zones:
Asclepias Syriaca (Common Milkweed) – Zone 3 to 9:
Common milkweed is native to North America and can be grown in many regions and growing zones. Common milkweed grows exceptionally well in the northern and central regions of the United States and Canada.
Plant Common milkweed in full sun with well-draining soil in wildflower meadows and prairie gardens.
Asclepias Tuberosa (Orange Butterfly Weed and Whorled Milkweed) – Zone 4 to 9:
Butterfly weed is a native milkweed to the southeastern United States and is an excellent growing choice for gardens in warm southerly growing zones.
Grow Butterfly Weeds in the full summer sun with well-drained soil and plant them in rock gardens, garden beds, perennial borders, and wildflower meadows. Butterfly weed is a drought-tolerant species and can be great for gardens in dry regions. The flowers have bright or light orange blooms.
Asclepias Incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) – Zone 4 to 8:
Plant swamp milkweed in damp soils. Swamp milkweed is an excellent choice for gardens near streams, rivers, wetlands, or rain gardens.
Plant Swamp milkweed in full sun to partial shade with moist soil in marshy or swampy areas.
Asclepias Speciosa (Showy Milkweed) – Zone 5 to 9:
Showy milkweed is native to North America and is well adapted to a wide range of growing conditions. Showy milkweed is an excellent choice for gardens in the northern and central regions of the United States and Canada.
Plant Showy milkweed in full sun to partial shade in well-draining soil in areas like meadows, prairies, and roadsides.
Asclepias Curassavica (Tropical Milkweed) – Zone 6 to 9:
Tropical milkweed is native to the tropics and is well adapted to warm and humid climates. It is an excellent choice for gardens in the southern United States and is often used as a container plant or for growing in greenhouses.
Tropical milkweed prefers full sun and well-drained soil and is well suited to growing in warm, humid areas.
How to Plant and Care For Milkweed: Step-by-Step Instructions
Planting milkweed is super easy! A few seeds, and you are on your way to a butterfly haven. There are a few things to keep in mind before you choose what type of milkweed you want to grow:
Step 1: Select a Hospitable Milkweed Planting Location:
Most milkweeds require full sun (at least 6 to 8 hours a day). Because they self-seed readily, locate your plants in a part of the garden where you can better control their rampant spread, such as at the back of the border or in a corner.
A spot protected from the wind will also help prevent the spread of seeds while providing a more hospitable environment for butterflies. It’s important to note that milkweed plants have a taproot and do not transplant well.
Step 2: Prepare the Soil:
Milkweed prefers fertile, loamy soil. Adding compost or organic matter can improve soil quality.
Step 3: Plant Seeds Outdoors in Fall:
If you’re planting milkweed from seed, sow the seeds outdoors in the fall, giving them the period of stratification (exposure to cold, moist conditions) they need to encourage spring germination and ensure a good display of flowers the following summer.
If you purchase starter plants, plant them in the spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Step 4: Plant Milkweed Seeds or Cuttings:
Milkweed can be started from seeds or cuttings, planted as seedlings, or directly sown.
Sow seeds in the spring or fall, and keep the soil moist until germination.
Cuttings can be taken in the summer and rooted in water or moist soil.
Step 5: Water and Fertilize:
Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Avoid overhead watering to prevent fungal growth. Fertilize once a month with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer during the growing season.
Step 6: Provide Support:
Some milkweed species can become top-heavy, so consider staking the plants or providing a trellis.
- Learn More: See our guide on vertical gardening and unique support systems.
Step 7: Control Pests
Aphids are a common pest that can damage milkweed plants. Here are some steps to deal with aphids on milkweed:
- Monitor for infestations: Check your milkweed plants regularly for signs of aphids, including sticky leaves, curled leaves, and black, sooty mold.
- Remove the aphids manually: Small infestations can often be controlled by removing them by hand and squishing them between your fingers.
- Use insecticidal soap: Mix it with water according to the label instructions and spray it directly on the aphids. Repeat the application every 3-5 days until the aphids are gone.
- Encourage natural predators: Ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects are natural predators of aphids and can help control infestations. Encourage these predators by planting a diverse array of flowers and providing a source of water.
BAD BUG BEGONE!
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Our guide to organic pest control methods offers practical solutions for dealing with common garden pests without using harmful chemicals. With step-by-step instructions and easy-to-follow tips, you’ll learn how to create a pest-resistant garden that is safe for your family and the environment. A great on-hand resource for any gardener!
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Step 8: Allow Milkweed to go to Seed:
After blooming, allow the plants to produce seed pods and collect the seeds for planting the next year or for sharing with friends.
How to Save Milkweed Seeds:
Saving milkweed seeds is a great way to propagate your plants and ensure a supply of milkweed for future seasons. Here are the steps to protect milkweed seeds:
- Wait for seed pods to mature: Milkweed seed pods will start to turn yellow and brown when they are ready to be harvested. This usually happens a few weeks after the plants have finished blooming.
- Harvest the seed pods: Cut them from the plant and place them in a paper bag or a similar container.
- Allow the seed pods to dry: Leave them in the bag or container for a few weeks to allow them to dry completely.
- Extract the seeds: Once the seed pods are dry, gently squeeze or twist them to release the seeds. Alternatively, you can cut the pods open and shake the seeds out.
- Store the seeds: Store the seeds in a dry, cool place in a sealed container or envelope. Label the container or envelope with the name of the species and the harvest date.
Learn More: See our complete guide on seed saving.
Step 9: Protect Milkweed Plants For Winter
Milkweed plants can be sensitive to winter weather but can survive and thrive through the colder months with proper care. Here are some steps to care for milkweed over winter:
- Protect from frost: Milkweed is sensitive to frost, so be sure to mulch around the base of the plants to insulate their roots and protect them from cold temperatures.
- Water regularly: While milkweed doesn’t require a lot of water, it’s essential to keep the soil around the roots moist during the winter to prevent drying out.
- Prune dead growth: Prune away dead or yellowed leaves from the plants in late fall to help them conserve energy and survive the winter.
- Avoid herbicides: Herbicides can harm the roots of milkweed plants and make it more difficult for them to survive the winter. If you need to control weeds, use manual methods like pulling or hoeing.
- Provide shelter: If your milkweed plants are in a windy area, consider providing some protection with a fence, wall, or windbreak. This will help protect the plants from wind damage and conserve energy during winter.
How to Start Milkweed From Seed Indoors
Starting milkweed seeds indoors is a great way to get a head start on the growing season and ensure that your plants will be well established by the time the weather warms up. Here are the steps to start some common milkweed seeds indoors:
- Gather materials: You will need seeds, a seed-starting mix, pots, and a warm location for starting your seeds.
- Prepare the pots: Fill them with a seed-starting mix and moisten them thoroughly. Make sure to use a light and well-draining combination, as heavy soil can lead to damping off in the seeds.
- Sow the seeds: Sow the milkweed seeds on the soil’s surface once the soil has warmed in late spring, spacing them out evenly and pressing them gently into the mix. Do not cover the seeds with soil, as they need light to germinate.
- Water and cover: Water the pots carefully, and ensure not to wash the seeds away. Place a clear plastic cover or wrap over the pots to help keep the soil moist.
- Place in a warm location: Put the pots in a warm area where they will receive bright, indirect light. A sunny windowsill or a warm room with fluorescent lighting is ideal.
- Keep soil moist: Check the pots regularly and keep the soil moist but not too wet. You can remove the plastic cover once the seeds have germinated and are starting to grow.
- Transplant: Once the seedlings have several leaves and are big enough to handle, transplant them into larger pots or the garden.
Learn to Recognize Monarch Caterpillars and Eggs
The monarch butterfly has a distinctive appearance with striking orange and black coloring. Here’s how to recognize monarch butterflies and their larvae in your gardens:
- Size: Adult Monarch butterflies are medium-sized with a wingspan of 3-4 inches.
- Color: The upper wings have a striking bright orange color with contrasting black veins and margins. The undersides of their wings are lighter in color, with white and black stripes.
- Markings: The bodies of monarch butterflies are black with white spots and two black veins on the back wings.
- Behavior: Adult butterflies will flit from flower to flower, feeding on nectar.
- Size: Monarch butterfly larvae are small 2-inch long caterpillar-like insects.
- Color: Black with distinct contrasting white and yellow stripes and a pair of black antennae at the head.
- Habitat: Typically found feeding on milkweed host plants.
Life Cycle Of Monarch Butterflies
The monarch butterfly has a fascinating life cycle. It includes four stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and finally, the beautiful adult butterfly.
- Monarch Eggs: The female monarch butterfly lays eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves. The eggs are small and oval-shaped and hatch within three to five days.
- Larva (caterpillar): After hatching, the tiny caterpillar feeds on the milkweed leaves, growing rapidly and molting several times. This stage lasts about two weeks.
- Pupa (chrysalis): After the caterpillar has finished feeding, it will form a chrysalis by attaching itself to a twig or leaf. During this stage, the caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis and becomes an adult butterfly.
- Adult butterfly: The final stage of the monarch’s life cycle is the adult butterfly. The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and spreads its wings to dry and harden. It then feeds on nectar from flowers and begins the cycle again by mating and laying eggs on a milkweed host plant.
The entire life cycle of the monarch butterfly takes about one month, with several generations occurring in a single season. The timing of the life cycle can vary depending on the region. Still, it typically takes place from spring to fall, with the final generation overwintering as adults in warmer climates or as eggs and caterpillars in cooler temperature regions.
How To Plant A Milkweed In A Container
Growing potted milkweed is an excellent option for those who have limited space or want to grow it in an area that is not native. Here are the steps to grow potted milkweed:
- Choose a container: Select a pot at least 12 inches in diameter with drainage holes. A plastic or terra cotta pot will work well.
- Fill the pot with soil: Use good quality potting soil that is well-draining. You can add compost or other organic matter to improve soil fertility.
- Plant the milkweed: Sow milkweed seeds in the soil, pressing them into the surface and covering them lightly with the soil. Alternatively, you can plant milkweed cuttings in the pot.
- Water the milkweed: Water the soil until it is evenly moist but not waterlogged. Be careful not to overwater, as this can cause root rot.
- Place the pot in a sunny location: Milkweed prefers full sun but can tolerate partial shade. Place the pot in an area that receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily.
- Fertilize the milkweed: Feed the milkweed once a month during the growing season with a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer.
- Monitor and care for the milkweed: Keep an eye out for pests and diseases, and address them promptly. Prune the milkweed as needed to promote healthy growth and prevent the plant from becoming too top-heavy.
Related: See our entire category on container planting guides.